ALEXANDER, ROBERT, merchant and politician; b. 1822 in Bonavista, Nfld, and baptized 27 Jan. 1823, son of William Alexander and Elizabeth Newell; d. 26 or 27 Jan. 1884 at Liverpool, England.
Robert Alexander’s father, a Scottish-born merchant at Bonavista, died when Robert was six years old. Along with two brothers and a sister, Robert was raised, apparently at Bonavista, by his mother who remarried in 1842. He probably apprenticed as a clerk in a mercantile business at St John’s, most likely in the firm of J. and W. Stewart and Company, based in Greenock, Scotland, which had had close connections with his father’s business and of which Robert became the managing partner in Newfoundland on 3 June 1861.
J. and W. Stewart had operated in Newfoundland since the early 19th century, exporting fish and seal products and importing provisions from the United States and Canada and manufactured goods from Britain. After the deaths of the two Stewart brothers, James and William, in the 1830s, the business had been controlled by its British shareholders and managed by a succession of agents in St John’s. When Alexander assumed control in 1861, J. and W . Stewart was one of the largest firms in the city. In 1866 it was shipping 38,142 quintals of cod, mainly to Portugal, Spain, and Brazil, and 28,364 seal skins valued at $21,273 to Greenock, representing about ten per cent of the total exports of these two products from St John’s in that year. It had been the first Newfoundland firm to export fish to Brazil. During the 1870s J. and W. Stewart supplied three steamers for the annual seal hunt and in 1875 one of them, the Proteus, established a local record for the most seals brought in by a steamer in one year: 44,377 seals taken in two voyages.
As a prominent leader of the small group of Water Street merchants who controlled the Newfoundland economy, Alexander was from 1864 to 1876 a member of the St John’s Chamber of Commerce and from 1863 to 1876 a director of the Union Bank of Newfoundland, the more successful of Newfoundland’s two locally owned banks in the 1870s. Besides being the agent for the Imperial Fire and Life Insurance Company of London, he was a director of several local companies, including the St John’s Marine Insurance Company, the Floating Dry Dock Company, and the Newfoundland Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Company. Alexander also had shares in 23 vessels newly registered in Newfoundland between the years 1861 and 1875.
In politics Alexander was a Conservative. During the 1869 general election, in which confederation with Canada was the central issue, he used the considerable influence of J. and W. Stewart through its branches in the Bonavista district to help elect the anti-confederate candidates, James L. Noonan, Francis Winton, and William M. Barnes. Alexander’s only foray into active politics was in 1874 when, as a supporter of Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter*’s party, he was elected in the strongly Protestant district of Fortune Bay. This victory was made possible through the direct intervention of the district’s dominant mercantile firm, Newman and Company. Alexander not only held political views in common with those of Newman and Company, but also had close business connections with the firm; since the 1850s J. and W. Stewart had leased the Newman premises in St John’s and in the 1870s acted as their agent in that city. Business commitments and ill health apparently restricted Alexander’s activities in the legislature and he did not seek re-election in 1878. By that date also he appears to have withdrawn from any direct involvement in the management of J. and W. Stewart.
Alexander died at Liverpool in 1884 while on a visit to improve his health. His estate, worth over £17,000, was divided among relatives, close friends, and local charities. Among the donations were £500 each for the St John’s Church of England Orphanage and the Colonial and Continental Church Society, £1,000 each for the erection of a sailor’s home at St John’s and for the fund to complete the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, and £2,000 for the establishment of an Alexander Charity Fund to be used for the maintenance of poor widows and orphans at Bonavista. His benevolence was lauded in St John’s since the bequests were, according to the Evening Mercury, “the first left by any of the merchants who have made money here.” His memory was perpetuated further by the name given to Alexander Bay in Bonavista Bay.
Anglican Church (Bonavista, Nfld.), Birth registers, 1786–1845; Marriage registers, 1786–1891 (copies at PANL). Maritime Hist. Group Arch., Alexander name file; Board of Trade ser.107–8 (entries for Robert Alexander and J. and W. Stewart and Company); Derek Bussey, “St. John’s Mercantile Trade, 1880” (typescript, 1973); Owen Hewitt, “Shipping St. John’s Harbour 1866” (typescript, 1973). St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (St John’s), Parish registers, 1842–91 (copies at PANL). Supreme Court of Newfoundland (St John’s), Registry, will of Robert Alexander, probated 12 Feb. 1884.
Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1846–89. Evening Mercury, 28 Jan., 1 Feb. 1884. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 1829–81. Business and general directory of Nfld., 1877. Chafe’s sealing book (1905). The Newfoundland almanack . . . , comp. Philip Tocque (St John’s), 1863. Devine, Ye olde St. John’s (1936). W. D. MacWhirter, “A political history of Newfoundland, 1865–1874” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1963). Paul O’Neill, The story of St. John’s, Newfoundland (2v., Erin, Ont., 1975–76), II.